Emma de Bara, a senior studying psychology and criminology, always dreamed of hiking the Camino de Santiago. The renowned trail, which winds through the mountains of northern Spain, has a rich history — having served as a spiritual path for pilgrims for more than a thousand years. Its natural scenery is accentuated by centuries-old structures that showcase the architectural and cultural history of the region.

A study abroad scholarship from the Global Education Office enabled de Bara to participate last summer in a faculty-led program that included a 16-day hike along the medieval route followed by two weeks of classes at the University of Santiago and homestay with families in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

De Bara was drawn to study in Spain, where her ancestors were from. The program would also help her meet almost all the remaining requirements for her minor in Spanish. Plus, she knew it would make her father proud.

He is a first-generation immigrant who is a passionate proponent of traveling internationally to broaden perspectives. From a young age, de Bara understood the importance of travel and of connecting with her heritage.

She worried, though, that the reality of going abroad would be financially out of her reach. Because de Bara is a twin, her family is supporting two college tuitions simultaneously. The extra expense of a study abroad experience was impractical. “I knew my only option was to get a scholarship,” de Bara said.

Scholarships are competitive, though. After multiple applications over two years, she finally was awarded a Global Education Scholarship during her junior year.

“I was yelling. I was so excited. I woke my dad up to let him know I got the scholarship. I don’t remember exactly what he said now, but I remember he was proud and excited for me,” de Bara said. “When I was given this opportunity, it made me feel like I was special. Virginia Tech saw potential in me and recognized me.”

Even though hiking the Camino was no easy task, the lasting value of those four weeks abroad continues to reverberate in her life. De Bara said she saw herself grow in many ways during her time in Spain. Hiking the Camino also instilled in her a renewed mental toughness and self-confidence.

“I became a stronger person, mentally and physically. I was able to gain new friendships in a totally different setting — showing me how to do it in the future. I became a better person because when you believe in yourself that energy empowers you.”

She recalls the lessons that Annie Hesp, collegiate assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, taught her about resilience when the hike was tough and said she thinks about these lessons often when facing new challenges.

De Bara’s study abroad experience has also set her apart during professional interviews, sparking conversations that have helped showcase the skills she gained during the program. When she needed letters of reference for law school, Hesp was the one she turned to.

photo of students Brigid Radtke, Emma de Bara, and Alexia Inzana
Students Brigid Radtke, Emma de Bara, and Alexia Inzana stop in front of the Santiago de Compostela sign while hiking in Spain. Photo courtesy of Emma de Bara.

The need for study abroad scholarships was highlighted by President Tim Sands during his State of the University address in January. “While we have been successful in increasing access, with over 40 percent of our entering undergraduate class identifying as first-generation, low-income, veteran, or underrepresented minority, we know that many students among these populations do not have the full experience of being a Hokie,” said Sands, noting that some students are not able to participate in paid internships or study abroad because of costs associated with relocating.

Virginia Tech has several scholarships available to help make studying abroad more accessible. Among those are ones awarded by the Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, based primarily on demonstrated financial need.

For this academic year, the Global Education Office has awarded 62 scholarships so far — ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 per student. Through these scholarships, the university aims to increase access to impactful educational opportunities for all Hokies — especially those belonging to traditionally underserved populations. First-generation students, for example, received more than half of this year’s scholarships. Additionally, more than half were awarded to students of color.

“Just as President Sands emphasized in his address, access is the driving force for scholarships,” said Theresa Johansson, director of global education. “I cannot sufficiently express the impact studying abroad has on students. We see this clearly in our own students as they return from study abroad, and published research confirms that studying abroad opens doors, develops important skills, brings academics alive, and gives students an employability edge. It is a great joy for us to be able to bring these experiences within reach for students who might otherwise be denied them.”

Every gift to the Global Education Office during Giving Day on Feb. 15-16 will go directly to funding study abroad scholarships, helping other students to have experiences like de Bara’s.

Written by Amanda Broome